By Matt Jatovsky
Since deserts are defined by a scarcity of water it’s always surprising—indeed magical—when it is present. Piute Creek, the only stream that flows year-round in Mojave National Preserve, is such a place. In a landscape dominated by cholla cactus, Mojave yucca and other signature desert plants, the creekbed is lined with water-loving cottonwood trees. In late fall, the yellow leaves sparkle in the desert sun. It is an incongruous scene in a landscape generally bereft of such autumnal displays. It is magical.
The geological backdrop to this scene is equally beautiful. Towering above the last of the cottonwoods at the head of the creek is Piute Gorge, a slot canyon carved by the torrential rains that occasionally surge through it. The walls of the gorge are hundreds of feet high. Cut off from the sky in this cool respite from the sun, you feel cut off from civilization as well. But such thoughts can be deceptive. Where there is water in the desert there are animals… and people.
The human history of Piute Creek is as compelling as its natural history. Archeological evidence suggests that humans have used the area for thousands of years. To stand on the banks of this small, remote creek and imagine crops of melon, corn, and other foods planted along the banks is to appreciate the ingenuity and efforts of the people who lived there so long ago. Piute Creek was also a stop along a busy trail that peoples of the Colorado River basin used to trade with tribes along the California Coast—a trail that the Spanish and, later, Americans largely followed. The route became known as the Mojave Road. Its importance is illustrated by the remnants of a fort that US soldiers built above the creek and briefly occupied from 1866–1867. Fort Piute protected mail and emigrants traveling to the coast. With the arrival of railroads, however, the route became extraneous. Mail was carried by rail, wagons ceased to use the road, and the native peoples who first used these trails and lived along the banks of Piute Creek were settled on reservations. The last residents of the area were George and Virginia Irwin who, in the 1940s and 1950s, operated a ranch east of the remains of Fort Piute.
Today the Mojave Road has been rerouted to protect the sensitive habitat that this miraculous desert stream supports, but one can still hike a small portion of the original route taken by so many. The human and natural drama of Piute Creek is truly inspirational. And it all begins, and ends, with that little stream on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert that never dries up.
Before visiting, be sure to consult a reliable map and, as always, it’s a good idea to check with a park ranger for the latest information on weather and road conditions.